Updated: August 31, 2019
People often ask me (joking, no one asks me anything, I ain't got no friends) what my favorite Linux desktop is. And my answer is, well, long and complicated. But I guess, in the past fifteen years, I've mostly used and loved Plasma and Unity, with some brief moments of joy with Gnome 2. Then, inevitably, the question of Xfce comes up, and my answer is even longer and more complicated.
The release of Xfce 4.14 might provide a part of the answer you're looking for. And you should definitely look at my reviews of various distros running Xfce, like say Xubuntu or MX Linux, to get a sense of what this desktop environment does, and how it does it. But then, it's never been really my default go-to setup, although I did use it quite successfully and effectively - and still do - on my feisty, 10-year-old Asus eeePC netbook. On the desktop proper, I like it, and I liked what it did approximately three years or so. Since, it's kind of kept a quiet profile, not quite here nor there. Well, I want to see if the new version has the kick to make my proverbial colt buck and gallop. Testing time it is then!
How do I xfced?
Ah. Well, things didn't start as fabulously as they ought. I read the official announcement, and it felt a bit bland for a major release, especially one that took almost 4.5 years of development work - just compare it to how KDE does their Plasma desktop. There was also a tour available, but at the time of writing, roughly a couple of weeks back or so, the tour page just read Coming soon! Well, I'd assume this page would have been created before the actual release.
Then, I wanted to test the new edition. This ain't a simple thing, because there's no such thing as a standalone Xfce ISO. Luckily, I had Manjaro Illyria installed on my Lenovo machine, and after a full update, the system was running the latest edition of the desktop environment, and I could finally plunge in.
First, there's an element of Manjaro-ness in this review, because I've customized the distro, plus Manjaro does a few Xfce things its own way, and indeed, I don't believe there's such a thing as a stock Xfce look, because every distro comes with a unique setup.
At first glance, little has changed - indeed, most of the new stuff is under the hood. Porting from gtk2 to gtk3, HiDPI support, things like that. Well, I focused on the user-facing elements, because that's what people actually experience and appreciate. The desktop is reasonably pretty, fast and stable. It looks like it always looked, so no surprises.
The screensaver isn't installed in Manjaro, but once I grabbed it, it does look presentable. Better than in the past, for sure. After that, I kind of struggled finding new and amazing things to showcase, because there wasn't much bling bling to play with.
I encountered a lot of visual papercuts. The horizontal line across the bottom third of the screen was back, and I had to change the Compositor settings (shadows under dock). Different sliders had text overlapping graphic elements.
Reading the release notes, I realized that if you put an image titled folder.jpg (other variations are possible) into a folder, then Thunar will use that icon as a custom graphics for the specific folder. I tried this with Music, and it didn't work (not after logout or even a reboot). I noticed a similar issue in a Manjaro forum thread. Whatever Thunar is meant to be doing, it wasn't. And you still can't rearrange the side pane elements.
But then, when I played music, Parole actually got confused and used the folder.jpg image as the custom cover art for my music. What. Now, VLC had no such issue, and neither did Parole after I removed the image file. Plus slider issues. Sigh. This doesn't really feel like a major improvement after such a long time, does it.
Whenever I say a distro doesn't feel modern or whatnot, people remind me that modern isn't necessarily good. And indeed, we are both right. I don't mean modern = flat, touch nonsense. What I mean, the usage patterns need to reflect the modern needs that came along in the past decade. For that matter, Xfce still remains the classic desktop, unchanged from the XP formula, if you will.
This means that if you do expect some buzzwordy usability, like convergence, online stuff, or the ability to use other devices, the desktop can definitely do that, but there will be nothing to really combine the functionality. It comes down to simple things like smartphone connectivity, encryption, or even global menu. Alas, these are hard to come by in the Xfce world. In fact, things have gotten worse, because not that long ago, I was able to create a reasonable dock & menu setup in Xfce, but this doesn't quite work anymore.
If you only look at 4.14 as the new Xfce release, then you lose nothing. It's all good. The desktop remains essentially the same, and it even boasts a few solid improvements in its core elements. But then, if you do compare it to other desktop environments, and what Linux does in general, things aren't quite so rosy. The performance benefit isn't as huge as it used to, because Plasma is super lean, too. The application suite is also lean and without a distinct identity. The desktop isn't cohesive enough, and it feels a little outdated.
For people who want a simple desktop formula, Xfce delivers - but then, so do other desktop environments. Moreover, you can count me in. I'm one of those classic desktop users. That does not mean I have to or want to compromise on aesthetics or added functionality. There's a big, soft gray area between Windows XP and the cloud-based voice-activated Dystopia, and Xfce is kind of lost there. I wish I could be enthused about this latest release, but in fact, I feel a little bit sad. It took an immensely long time, and I don't feel any real passion or fun behind the project, just inertia. If you only care about Xfce and what it does, you will like it. But there's more to it, and Xfce needs a desperate infusion of enthusiasm and innovation. To be continued.